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Standards: Should You Care? (Probably Not)

By Mike Rothman

I just wrote up my portions of tomorrow’s Incite, and talked a bit about the importance of standards in product selection. But it’s hard to treat cogently in 30 words, so let me dig into it a bit more here. Mostly because of prevailing opinion on the importance of standards, and to what degree standards support should be a key selection criteria.

From the news angle, our pals at the Cloud Security Alliance are driving down the standards path, recently partnering with the ISO to get some standards halo on the CSA Guidance. Selfishly, I’m all for it, mostly because wide acceptance of the CSA Guidance means more demand for the CCSK certification. That means more demand for CCSK training, which Securosis is building. So from that perspective it’s all good. (Note: Our next CCSK training class will be June 8-9 in San Jose, taught by Rich and Adrian.)

But if I can see through my own selfish economically driven haze, let’s take a step back to understand where standards matter and where they don’t. Just thinking out loud, here goes:

  1. Mature markets: Standards matter in mature markets and mature products. In these, you will likely need to support a heterogeneous environment, because buying criteria are more about price/TCO than functionality. So being able to deal with standard interfaces and protocols to facilitate interoperability is a good thing.
  2. Risk averse cultures: Yes, this goes hand in hand with mature markets. Most risk-averse organizations aren’t buying early market products (before standards have gelled), but when they do, if a product does support a “standard,” it reduces their perceived risk. This is what the CSA initiative is about. Folks want legitimacy, and for many people legitimacy = standards.

I’m hard pressed to find other situations where standards matter. Did I miss one (or many)? Let me know in the comments.

As I tried to describe, standards don’t matter when dealing with emerging threats, where people are still figuring out the best way to solve the problem. Standards also don’t matter if a company tends to buy everything from a single vendor – assuming the vendor actually integrates their stuff, which isn’t a safe assumption (ahem, Big Yellow, ahem. Cough. Barf.)

And vendors tend to push their proprietary technology through a standards process for legitimacy. Obviously if the vendor can say their technology is in the process of being standardized, it reduces perceived risk. But the unfortunate truth is that by the time any technology works its way through the standards process, the game has already changed. Twice.

So keep that in mind when you are preparing those fancy RFPs asking for all kinds of standards support. Are you asking because you need it, or to reduce your risk? Or maybe just to give the vendor a hard time, which I’m cool with.

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